Paula Whaley's poetry flows from her hands

James Baldwin's youngest sister started sculpting as a form of therapy; now it's a form of communication

September 05, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

"I don't know, sister,

what I'm saying,

nor do no man,

if he don't be praying.

I know that love is the only answer

and the tight-rope lover

the only dancer. …

—From the poem "Some Days (for Paula)" by James Baldwin

The tightrope lover was 40 years old in 1983 when Baldwin published a book containing this prescient verse. The author hoped that "Some Days" would help his younger sister steady her nerves and find her footing as she inched along the thin path to safety.

But when Baldwin died of stomach cancer four years later, Paula Whaley very nearly lost her balance.

"Jimmy's death devastated me," Whaley says of the pioneering author who chronicled the African-American experience.

"I was in bad shape, but I didn't realize it. I had lost a lot of weight and I looked like someone with cancer or AIDS. A young sculptor who I didn't know came up to me one day and said, 'You're in deep trouble. If you want to live, put your hands in some clay.'

"I'm usually not an obedient person. But for some reason, I said, 'OK.' "

She paused and sat quietly for a moment in her Charles North studio before looking up. At 71, she has delicate bones that belie her inner steel and large, expressive eyes, the better for looking inward.

"Art can heal," she says. "It's been that way for me."

In the quarter-century since her brother's death, Whaley has become as eloquent with Italian clay and surgical gauze as her brother was with words. About two dozen of her soft sculptures are part of "Locally Sourced," a group show at the Maryland Institute College of Art featuring five artists active in the Station North arts district.

The exhibit includes a floor-to-ceiling mural by the street artist known as Nether (who was born Justin Nethercut); a plywood map that artist Jason Hoylman carved with the routes of 27 people as they traversed local streets, and a 24-minute looping video put together by Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick of their interviews with key neighborhood figures.

"We're looking at how artists interact with their neighbors and how those exchanges help a community thrive," says Melani Douglass, one of the 10 students in MICA's curatorial practices program who put together the show.

The curators were intrigued with the meditative nature of Whaley's doll sculptures and her unconventional career path. Whaley doesn't solicit attention from the art world. She doesn't enter contests or exhibit at art fairs or write grant proposals. Instead, customers seek her out.

"Paula's the inviter-in, the one who calls people to her," student curator Emily Russell says.

"She has a storefront gallery with a window in front of her house that showcases work by other local artists, and it brings in passers-by. When people visit Paula's studio, that's when they meet her and see her dolls."

Whaley often says that people either love her work or hate it. Some viewers are spooked by her sculptures. Possibly, that's because her creations are at odds with our shared cultural experience of dolls designed to resemble idealized infants inhabiting a storybook world.

In contrast, Whaley's stylized figures have twisted, elongated limbs, oversized mouths that aren't smiling and enormous, closed eyes. Their heads aren't always where they should be. Sometimes Whaley creates a tiny head and plunges it between the doll's shoulders and directly over the heart. Maybe there's no head at all. Maybe, several heads peer out at the viewer from unexpected places. Another doll carries her head in her hands.

In the 2004 book, "Black Dolls: Proud, Bold & Beautiful," author Nayda Rondon wrote that Whaley's "thought-provoking spiritual characters — frequently standing forty inches tall — have faces marked with life's often tragic and harsh passing, yet they also possess broad shoulders on which to bear their burdens."

Other viewers see past the pain to the promise of healing. Many doll bodies are made from surgical gauze used to bind wounds. Others incorporate such natural forms as palm leaves and moss, or rope and burlap that the artist paints a rich red, a deep blue-violet shot through with gold or a cloud-like, transparent white.

The sculptures have names such as "Wisdom" and "Tranquillity." In each, the artist incorporates a brass Gye Nyame — a Ghanaian symbol that signifies the supremacy of God. The amulets are tiny. You have to look hard to find the gold circle wrapped around a strand of hair or buried in a fold of cloth. Whaley has even been known to enclose the symbol inside a doll's body. But it's always there.

"When you walk into Paula's studio, she almost always has incense burning or lemon grass oil so you're immediately hit with this lovely uplifting smell," Russell says. "And then you're surrounded by all these beautiful dolls that are kind of praying all around you."

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